To Kill a Turkey

I killed my own Thanksgiving turkey this year. I wasn’t sure that I could do it, but it was something I’d long wanted to try.

This not to say that I took the idea of killing a turkey lightly (I didn’t) or that I was excited about killing an animal (I wasn’t). But I do want know as much as possible about where my food comes from and while I’ve gone on farm tours to see how animals are raised, it’s rare to get the opportunity to see how an animal goes from the pasture to the plate.  So when a local farm offered the chance to participate in a turkey ‘harvest’, I signed up.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, an animal dies in order for us to eat meat. It can be easy to ignore that trade-off since so few of us have to do or even see the kill, but the trade-off exists and I wanted to see for myself if I was really comfortable with it. I assumed I could kill the turkey — as a meat eater, I felt in a way like it was my duty to kill it — but I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about myself afterwards or how I’d feel about meat.

And the farm’s instructions were sobering: it said we should bring shoes that could get dirty and a sharp knife. But although I was wearing old shoes and I’d had Mr. WholeHog sharpen my knife, I was worried on that rainy Sunday morning as I drove out to Marin with my sister. I worried that my knife wasn’t sharp enough. I worried that I’d mess it up somehow and cause the bird to suffer unnecessarily. I worried that it would be violent, that the bird would be in distress.

But as it turned out, the bird was calm. It stood still when I draped the net over it to separate it from the other turkeys. It didn’t make any attempt to run away as the farmer showed me how to gently crouch on it, using my knees to keeping its wings close to its body. Although I was afraid of its beak, the turkey didn’t try to peck me when I reached for its head, and it didn’t resist at all when I exposed its neck. There was no discernible reaction from the turkey even when I made the first cut through the thick bumpy skin on the neck (the farmers said this cut blood to the brain and caused the bird to pass out) or the second, fatal cut.

I’d thought a lot about the actual killing, but I learned that the harder part was being there with the bird as its body shut down. Since I was sitting with the bird, essentially sitting on the bird, I could feel its muscles contract, its wings try to flap, and its whole body briefly convulse before it was still. It was an intense process to sit through it, especially knowing that I’d put this process in motion, but it felt right to be there. I’d taken the turkey’s life; the least I could do was be there with it as it died.

One of the two farmers was there with me, helping me at every stage of the process — showing me where to cut, even loaning me his knife, and checking to make sure my cuts were sufficient. Afterwards, he helped me pick up the bird by its feet. “It’s meat now,” he said.

But the bird didn’t start to look like meat until after it had been dipped in a vat of hot water and my sister and I started to take off the feathers.  It was surprisingly intimate to pluck the bird. We had to go over the bird’s whole, still-warm body, raising its wings in order to remove the soft, downy feathers underneath and turning it over carefully to remove the thicker feathers from its back.

We’d harvested the turkeys in in groups of two so a farmer could be there alongside each harvester, but we all gathered around one big table to pluck the birds. Despite the tedious work and the odd smell of cooked feathers, there was a communal feeling at the work table. As we talked and passed around the pliers necessary to remove the large, thick feathers from the birds’ wings, I thought about how there were likely people and small farms across the country who were spending this Sunday before Thanksgiving the same way I was, with wet feathers on their hands and a little blood on their jeans.

Without its feathers, our turkey began to look more like what you’d buy at the store, although our bird still had its head and its bloody neck, its brown, scaly feet, and its guts. My sister bravely took on the work of gutting our bird, removing the feet and head and then carefully separating the skin and the throat from the neck before cutting the neck off. Then she took out the crop, a balloon-like organ where turkeys store food, and the farmer showed us that we could still feel the grain and leaves the bird had eaten that morning. Finally, she pulled out the innards: gizzard, heart, liver, intestines and lungs. We washed the bird, weighed it, and we were done.

It had taken half of a day to transform the turkey from a living bird into the star of our Thanksgiving dinner. And the time, skill and attention it had taken to harvest the bird made me realize that the the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving meal is special — not because it was brined or rubbed with butter and herbs, but because someone raised the bird, killed it, and prepared it for us to cook. The experience made me think about how most of us devote practically a whole day to cooking our Thanksgiving turkey, but until the harvest, I’d spent very little time considering what it took to get that bird from its coop to our home. I had no idea what the process looked like, sounded like, felt like or smelled like; now those senses are what I remember most about the experience.

Some predicted that the experience of killing my own turkey would turn me into a vegetarian, but I thoroughly enjoyed my Thanksgiving turkey this year. Our bird had incredible flavor and texture (I’ve found that heritage birds tend not to have that dry, cotton-y texture.) But what has changed for me is that now when I see turkey or chicken on a menu, there’s a moment where I think about the bird. And I don’t think in terms of breasts, thighs or wings, instead I think about the odd smell of wet feathers, about the feel of its thick-skinned neck. These thoughts don’t make me reconsider ordering chicken or turkey, but they do make me feel more aware of the bird before it was meat.

I’ve chosen not to include the farm’s name here because I know there are people out there who don’t approve of any animal death, but contact me or leave a comment if you want the info. The farm took incredibly good care of us, loaning us rain gear and helping us with the emotional and physical work of the day.  They told us right off the bat that we didn’t have to do anything we weren’t comfortable with. The farm also took incredibly good care of the birds themselves. The turkeys had spent their lives outside with room to spread their wings and pasture to scratch around in.

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